‘Ace of Spades’ is a searing thriller exploring institutional racism in US private schools. It’s a powerful read exploring some hard-hitting topics, but despite the difficult subject matter it’s incredibly fast-paced and readable.
Niveus Private Academy is one of the most elite US schools, attended almost exclusively by the super-rich and churning out students destined for Harvard or Yale. Amongst these students, Devon Richards doesn’t fit in. He’s an exceptionally talented musician – but his father’s in prison, and his mother can barely scrape together enough money to pay the fees even with his hefty scholarship. Not to mention the fact he’s one of only two Black students in his year. The other, Chiamaka, has generational wealth thanks to her Italian father – but she still straightens her hair and puts on a persona every day to try and make herself fit in. She’s fought her way up to Head Girl, but her fight hasn’t made her many friends. When the two find themselves the target of an anonymous texter, Aces, determined to spill their darkest secrets, they must band together if they want to keep their future – and possibly themselves – alive.
Devon is an exceptionally likeable protagonist. He struggles with school – struggles being around people who have too much when his family struggles to even pay the bills – but he loves his family, and his passion for music is incredible. He’s desperate to make it to Juilliard to make his mother’s sacrifices for his education worth it. He’s also gay, but terrified of that coming out – terrified of how his mum might react. Devon skips classes and sometimes deals drugs to try and make sure there’s enough money in the house for the bills to be paid, but he has a good heart and does everything with the best intentions and to try and make his mother proud. He’s the sort of character you want to give a hug to for the majority of the book.
Chiamaka takes longer to warm up to, but she’s a complex character and very well crafted. She wears masks in every moment of her life – a Head Girl mask at school, a Good Nigerian Daughter mask at home with her parents, a Bubbly Fun Girl mask with her best friend Jamie. Beneath the masks, Chiamaka just wants to be good enough – to make it into medical school at Yale and prove that she deserves it. She wants so badly to be liked and respected that she forces herself to be other people because she isn’t convinced that she deserves it as herself. Her battles with self-esteem are hugely relatable, and exacerbated by being the only Black girl at her school and hyper-aware of it. Her growth throughout the book is excellent and it’s amazing seeing her confidence gradually change from a crafted, false confidence to a genuine sense of belief in herself.
The plot is fast-paced and twisty, with a constant sense of tension and unease. It starts as simple high school drama – an anonymous texter spreading gossip – but quickly takes on a more sinister tone. There are side plots dealing with homophobia, incarceration, gangs, and internalised racism. These are all dealt with very well, provoking a great deal of thought without being too heavy for a YA reader. They also fit into the flow of the story, never distracting or coming across as preachy. For a debut novel its an assured and impressive read.
There are a few minor quibbles. There’s a sapphic relationship between two bisexual female characters which comes out of nowhere and has absolutely no on page chemistry – a shame, as every other relationship in the book is well-crafted. The plot is also a bit over-exaggerated which can occasionally take away from the important messages it puts across – but then again, this is fiction, and thriller as a genre is often over-exaggerated. Still, these are tiny blips on an otherwise resoundingly excellent copybook.
Overall, ‘Ace of Spades’ is an excellent YA thriller tackling some important and heavy issues in a powerful yet readable way. Recommended for fans of both YA and adult thrillers and anyone who enjoys TV shows like Gossip Girl.
Published by Usborne
Paperback: 10th June 2021